(This is the first of what we hope will be a series of stories on long-time volunteer firefighters in our communities)
Jim Meldrum has been a volunteer firefighter, almost without a break, since the mid-1980s. The one break he did have was when he served as fire chief in Grouard for two years, at the rate of $300 per month.
“That was in addition to my regular job,” Meldrum says.
Meldrum’s regular job back then was in recreation services for Alberta Vocational College, Lesser Slave Lake (now known as Northern Lakes College). He had been hired straight out of college in 1984.
“Manny Chalifoux was the fire chief in Grouard then,” Meldrum says.
Another person on the volunteer fire department was Kyle Paulson, who was also in recreation services with AVC. They’re both still volunteer firefighters, 35 or so years later.
Meldrum grew up in Alberta oilpatch towns, with Valleyview being the last place. He went to Grande Prairie Regional College in the late 1970s, studying recreation administration. He then spent about five years completing a University of Alberta degree in the same subject.
“I worked a lot during that time to pay for it,” says Meldrum, explaining why it took him so long.
One of his jobs was a summer gig with the Town of Slave Lake, in recreation, under Ronda Groom. He recalls Lyle Thomas was the town’s fire chief then.
“He planted the seed,” Meldrum says. “Twigged my interest.”
Another thing twigging his interest was volunteering for the ambulance service, under Weldon Prosser.
“I learned a lot, pretty fast,” he says. “My first call was a fatality.”
Joining the volunteer department in Grouard was a pretty short step after that. Meldrum found it a good fit.
“I liked the environment,” he says. “Teamwork. Helping the community, and you’re generally held in high esteem.”
In the fall of 1991, the college transferred Meldrum to Slave Lake, and he wasted no time in signing up. About a month after arriving he became a volunteer firefighter, based at the hall that was then part of the town office complex. Les Glasier was the chief then, and one of his fellow newbies was Jamie Coutts. The late John Perkinson was another one.
“It was radically different,” than the Grouard experience, Meldrum says. “It was kind of like moving to the big city, I guess.”
More people, more equipment, more training – the works. And busier.
“Constant change, so you’re always learning,” he says.
Besides responding to calls, Meldrum pretty early on started specializing in public relations type of stuff for the department. Mainly it was because other members weren’t interested in it, but he says he enjoyed the role. So he would be the one visiting schools, reading to kids at the library, organizing participating in parades, and that sort of thing.
Another thing he helped with was to get the junior firefighter program off the ground. This was something fun and useful for teenagers to do, and some of them, Meldrum says, went on to careers in firefighting.
“Andrew Mackay was the first, I think,” he says. Kelly L’Hirondelle and Freddie Bickell are two other names.
Meldrum says after a number of years, a lot of the calls he attended as a firefighter “start to blend into one another.” However, a few stand out.
“Meeting the Duke and Duchess!” he says. “Not many firefighters get to do that!”
That would be William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who visited Slave Lake shortly after the devastating 2011 wildfires. They held a private meeting for emergency responders.
Of course the wildfire itself was high on the list of memorable events in Meldrum’s volunteer firefighting career.
There were some really bad car crashes, with multiple deaths, but Meldrum doesn’t like to talk too much about those.
Search and rescue
For the past dozen years, Meldrum has also been volunteering with Slave Lake Search and Rescue. It’s a separate organization, but under the umbrella of the regional fire service.
“It’s a pretty successful model,” he says. “It’s probably one of the top four SAR groups in Alberta, in terms of resources, skills and training.”
Volunteers from the group have helped out during wildfires, floods and evacuations. Meldrum is part of a national SAR committee, looking at ways to integrate SAR volunteers into other types of emergency response. Fire departments and EMS are stretched everywhere, he says, so it makes sense.
What else? A lifelong bachelor, Meldrum in his late 50s found himself suddenly a stepfather to his girlfriend’s five children. It’s a big change that he says he’s enjoying. Their ages are six, eight, 10, 12 and 15.
“It’s fun,” he says. “It’s always something I wanted to do.”
Asked if he has any advice for young people thinking of becoming firefighters, Meldrum says he would encourage anyone to look into it. It isn’t for everybody, he says, so a good idea would be to start by talking to someone who is involved.
“It is a life change,” he says. “You’re around people who want to do good things for the community and humanity. Yes, there are hard things you see, but it’s easy to stay encouraged.
“Plus, you get to drive around in cool fire trucks!”